Eight children and teens linked to the accused Philadelphia basement captors were in protective custody on Wednesday, including a teen so badly abused that "it makes you want to cry," the city's police commissioner said.
Four accused captors are charged with kidnapping four mentally handicapped adults, each with the capacity of a 10-year-old child, found in a basement dungeon in what authorities said was a scheme to steal their Social Security disability checks.
The four adults were discovered malnourished and imprisoned in the filthy basement room over the weekend. One was chained to a furnace. Authorities said two of those held had been captive for roughly 11 years.
Police said they also had eight children and teens in protective custody, the youngest a 2-year-old, and were working to determine the nature of their relationships with both the suspects and captives.
One of the teens, Beatrice Weston, 19, is a niece of suspect Linda Ann Weston and had been beaten and tortured, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. She had been reported missing in 2009.
"It is remarkable that she is alive," Ramsey said, adding that she was covered in burn marks and suffered pellet gun wounds on her ankles.
"It is absolutely one of the worst things you can see," he said. "It makes you want to cry when you see it."
Police said that in addition to the eight children and teens, two other young people had also briefly been in custody before being released.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he was not certain the word "horrific" was adequate to describe the situation.
"This is sheer madness," Nutter told a news conference, adding the case was an "incredibly tangled web of horror."
Linda Ann Weston, 51, of North Philadelphia; Gregory Thomas, 47, also of North Philadelphia; and Eddie Wright, 50, described as homeless, have all been arrested in the case, along with Jean McIntosh, 32, who is Weston's daughter and was arrested on Wednesday. Weston remains jailed on $2.5 million bail, along with Thomas, whom she described as her boyfriend, and Wright.
More than 30 years ago, Weston was convicted of starving to death a 25-year-old man in her apartment in North Philadelphia and served eight years in prison, authorities said.
Police in Virginia confirmed they investigated the 2008 death of a woman living with Weston, who's accused of being the ringleader in the Philadelphia basement case and who cleared out of the Norfolk home hours after calling police about the death.
A Virginia death certificate said 39-year-old Maxine Lee died of meningitis but also suffered from a wasting disease.
The suspects in the current case were charged with a lengthy list of crimes, including kidnapping, conspiracy, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment and assault.
The four captives were discovered by a landlord during a check of the two-story apartment house in the working-class Tacony neighborhood. Police identified them as Derwin McLemire, 41, of North Carolina; Herbert Knowles, 40, of Virginia; and Tamara Breeden, 29, and Edwin Sanabria, 31, both of Philadelphia.
Police say there may be as many as 50 victims in multiple states in the case.
The case could be among the first of its kind prosecuted as a federal hate crime, according to a law-enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named for two victims of notorious hate-based killings and expands earlier federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation or disability, among other things.
The law has been used sparingly since its passage. The first to go to trial was the case of Frankie Mayberry, of Arkansas, who was convicted in May of attacking a car last year with five Hispanic men inside it.
Police believe Weston had been stealing the Philadelphia victims' Social Security disability checks, perhaps as part of a much larger fraud scheme. They found dozens of other Social Security and identification cards, along with power of attorney documents, in a search of McIntosh's apartment, where Weston had been staying.
Weston was legally disqualified from cashing the victims' government disability checks because of her criminal past.
But she apparently did anyway, enabled in part by a lack of accountability and follow-through by government agencies and police.
The Social Security Protection Act of 2004 generally bars people who have been imprisoned for more than a year from becoming representative payees, those who cash someone else's check. Yet a 2010 report by Social Security's watchdog found that staff members do not perform background checks to determine if payees have criminal records.
The report from the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General said that people who apply to become payees are supposed to answer a question on whether they've ever been convicted of an offense and imprisoned for more than a year. But the report noted that the agency recognizes that self-reporting of such information "is not always reliable."
The inspector general said that in the cases it reviewed, about 6 percent of non-relative payees had been imprisoned for longer than a year and "may pose a risk to the beneficiaries they serve."
A Social Security spokesman declined to provide details of the agency's investigation into Weston but said the agency recently strengthened oversight of payees.